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Theater responds to concerns, and community breaks into song

Posted: July 17th, 2015 | Columns, Featured, Lifestyle, North Park, Parenting | 1 Comment

By Andy Hinds |Parenting

You are certainly aware of the buzz surrounding an upcoming event at the Observatory North Park (formerly the iconic North Park Theatre), wherein people nostalgic for the ‘70s participate in a boisterous homage to that era’s nostalgic notions about the ‘50s. You’re not? Oh. That’s fine; you probably just don’t get out much, what with the kids and work and all that. All the young scenesters are talking about it.

Andy Hinds

Andy Hinds

Anyway, Friends of Jefferson Elementary, the nonprofit community group that supports North Park’s neighborhood public elementary [disclosure: I’m a board member], is throwing a shindig: For 10 measly dollars, you can join several hundred of your friends and neighbors in belting out your favorite tunes from “Grease” as you watch the original 1978 movie starring John Travolta and Olivia Newton John. Included in the price is your choice of either a) one serving of beer or wine from the theater bar (beer courtesy of Mike Hess Brewing); or b) two items from the popcorn/candy counter. All proceeds from the theater bar and concession stand go to Friends of Jefferson.

In addition to the shenanigans inside the beautiful theater, the North Park Historical Society is arranging for some bitchin’ hot rods to be parked outside the building for your ogling pleasure. This all happens on Sunday (party people may know this day by its other name: “Funday”), July 26. Doors open at 2 p.m., and the movie rolls at 3.

To recap: Hot rods. Danny. Sandy. Rizzo. Kinickie. Adult beverages. The song stylings of … you and your crew. All for a measly sawbuck (that’s ‘50s lingo for $10).

At this point you are probably thinking, boy, that Friends of Jefferson must be a powerful and well-funded organization to be able to have events in such a swanky and prestigious venue!

Powerful? Yes, if you mean “dedicated to the point of obsession and buoyed by the moral support of the community.” Well-funded? Um, that’s a work in progress.

Having completed the pitch segment of this column, allow me to proceed to the backstory, which is probably more interesting, and definitely has more lessons and morals and whatnot.

The story of the North Park Theatre is long and fascinating. It was built in 1928 as a vaudeville theater and movie house, and quickly became a top performer of the Fox West Coast Theater chain. State of the art for its day — the first Fox theater with “Vitaphone Sound” and air conditioning — it was the entertainment hub of the community. Alas, the ‘60s and ‘70s saw a decline in business for the neighborhood movie house as shopping centers and malls took over; and by the ‘80s, North Park Theatre was virtually abandoned.

From 2000 to 2005, with backing by the city, the North Park Theatre was resurrected to its former glory. But as an economic enterprise, it still floundered. Its owner, Lyric Opera, could not keep the lights on with ticket sales from musical theater and other rentals, and filed bankruptcy. David Cohen and the Verant group took over in 2013.

The Verant group had owned West Coast Tavern, the restaurant in the front of the building, since 2009. The restaurant continued to do well after Cohen took over, and the theater side treaded water with a new format that focused more on bands.

Then in January 2015, the whole operation was purchased by Orange County concert venue, The Observatory. This came as a surprise to many, including the manager of West Coast Tavern, Paris Landen, who, along with getting a new employer, gained a new job description as the general manager of both the restaurant and the theater.

Paris, although somewhat blindsided, took the transition in stride, and told me that in reality, the changes to the business were minor. “We have more shows now,” she said, “which we have to in order to stay in business — just the electricity bills in the theater are incredible.”

Others in the neighborhood had a different perception of the changes. Complaints swirled around on the street and social media. Too many shows. Too loud. Increased litter. Unsavory characters stumbling through yards. Patrons taking up the street parking. Oddly, these beefs only came through secondhand reports. “No one complained directly to me or anyone at the theater,” Paris said. “I guess they weren’t sure who was in charge at that point.”

Instead, locals expressed their consternation about an OC rock club and its denizens invading their neighborhood, and to folks like Angela Landsberg, executive director of North Park Main Street, the organization that, among its other roles, acts as a liaison between business and community members.

“People tend to direct their complaints to me,” Angela said. “And when I say there are a lot of them, I mean … yeah,” she trails off. When complaints about Observatory North Park started materializing, Angela quickly organized meetings between herself, Paris, the Police Department, the Business Maintenance District, the North Park Garage (parking structure) and concerned citizens.

Meanwhile, at the March meeting of the North Park Planning Committee (NPCC), a few people brought up their concerns regarding the new concert venue during the public comment segment. “It really wasn’t that big of a deal,” said Vicki Granowitz, chair of the committee. “Just a couple of people who were upset about the Observatory; but also a couple who defended them.”

Some businesses might have brushed off the concerns of their neighbors, especially when not confronted directly, but Paris and her team proactively put their heads together with Angela and the other parties involved, and hammered out solutions to every concern they had heard. At the next NPCC monthly meeting, Paris and Observatory’s Director of Operations Ryan Black were prepared with responses to all of the concerns that had been voiced. They even used PowerPoint.

Paris explained some of the changes. To address the intertwining concerns of public safety and litter, Paris tasked her small army of security personnel (which had grown from seven members to 36 with the change in ownership) with patrolling the neighborhood for trash and rowdy behavior. “They’re not the police,” she said, “but they can remind people that they are in a residential neighborhood if they’re being loud or inappropriate.” In addition, she hired off-duty police officers to hang around during shows, mostly as a disincentive for concert-goers to act stupid. Also, she opened communications with SDPD to let them know when she is expecting big crowds and when shows let out, so that they can send a patrol car by if one is available, just to make their presence felt.

To the noise complaints, Paris responded by having soundproofing curtains installed, and is working on even more structural solutions for the future. She enacted a “no re-entry” policy so that the doors stay closed and patrons can’t wander between the performance and their cars doing god-knows-what in the surrounding area.

The ever-present parking problem was mitigated by an ingenious and elegant solution: a couple bucks were tacked on to the price of each concert ticket to validate parking in the parking garage on 29th Street. (A happy side note: Since that policy has been in place, the structure has started meeting its budget goals for the first time since it was constructed.)

Finally, Paris and Ryan addressed a more existential concern about the new business: How would it give back to the community that helps them stay in business? Paris cited several community events they had hosted at no cost or a reduced cost to the organizations involved, including the annual FilmOut San Diego LGBT Film Festival, events with the San Diego LGBT Community Center, and … a fundraiser for Friends of Jefferson involving the movie “Grease.”

There is yet another backstory, full of happy coincidences and fuzzy warmth, explaining how the partnership between Friends of Jefferson and Observatory North Park evolved, but no space for it here.

And how was Paris and Ryan’s presentation to the (formerly) concerned citizens of North Park received? Well, suffice it to say that the positive comments from the audience that followed had to be cut short in the interest of time. And certain, usually gruff and stoic attendees (ahem) may have gotten a little something in their eye as they imagined North Park Theatre and Jefferson Elementary rising together like conjoined phoenixes (phoenices?) caught in the updraft of their community’s goodwill. It was dusty in there and I was a little tired, I swear.

I asked Angela Landsberg what she thought the lessons of the whole episode were, and she put it in much more practical terms than the convoluted metaphor above: “It’s just a great example of the kinds of outcomes that are possible when people sit down and problem-solve rather than throw daggers at each other.”

When I asked Paris Landen what was most remarkable to her about the experience, she said, “Ironically, because of this rough start, I was compelled to really get into community relations, which is something that I love. Before, we weren’t making enough money to think about how we could help anyone else out. There are growing pains, sure; but the more we grow, the more we can give back.”

—Contact Andy Hinds at facebook.com/friendsofjeffersonelementary or friendsofjeffersonnp@gmail.com.

One Comments

  1. diane strum says:

    LOVE THE ARTICLE, PARTICULARLY the history of the theater. I lived in north park in the 1950’s and early 60’s and went to the North Park theater almost every Saturday–walked from my house then. Fast forward many years, I am the long-time happy owner of an apartment building on 30th Street; and am in love with the North Park Renaissance, as are all my tenants.

    Also, awesome job on the part of the new theatre owners for working with the community. They had great ideas, particularly the one about parking in the parking structure and now parking structure is meeting budget for the first time. I think theater owners and managers are doing a model job of working with the community and becoming an important asset to North Park.

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